SMU coach Sonny Dykes: Most important part of coaching is ‘who to surround yourself with’

Sonny Dykes returned home to Texas in 2017 to become the head coach at SMU, following in the footsteps of his father, Spike, who was a legend in Texas coaching circles. Sonny Dykes, who had previous head coaching stints at Cal (2013-16) and Louisiana Tech (2010-12), has swiftly put SMU back on the map as a legitimate college football program.

In his second season at SMU this fall, Dykes led the Mustangs to a 7-0 start – the program’s first 7-0 start since 1982 and its first top-25 ranking since the program incurred college football’s only “death penalty” in 1987.

Dykes recently joined FNF Coaches for an exclusive interview.

When did you start to get the sense that you wanted to get into coaching?

“My Dad was a longtime high school coach who later got into college football. For me, just like most young kids, I wanted to do something different than my Dad. When I got to college, I thought maybe I’d go to law school or go into aviation. As I started to finish up college, I couldn’t imagine not being a part of a team or being around young people. That feeling of self-sacrifice for the greater good doesn’t always happen as much in the real world.”

What did you take away from your experience of coaching at the high school level at the start of your career?

“I started coaching high school for a year, and then I spent two years as a graduate assistant. Coaching is teaching. Instead of doing it in a classroom, it’s on a field. It’s about finding ways to connect with students and presenting material they’re interested in. You want them to see that when they learn it, it will make them better somehow. That’s coaching – finding a way to reach your players. I’ve always believed in telling them why they’re doing something. I used to do that as an English teacher. I’d say, ‘We’ll read Shakespeare, and this is why it’s important.’ We do the same thing as coaches. Here’s why we’re doing it, here’s why it’s important, this is how it will make us successful and help the team win.”

What did you learn from your two previous stops as a head coach at the college level?

“At Louisiana Tech, there were strengths of being in Ruston, Louisiana, and there were weaknesses. It’s a very small town. We had to figure out what players would come and be happy. First, we figured we’d recruit all these kids from Dallas and Houston because I had connections there. We’d bring them to Ruston on a visit, and they liked everything about it, but they weren’t comfortable in that small town. We had to change our recruiting focus.

“When I went to Cal, we went into rebuilding mode, and we were not very good early. We won a Bowl game in our third year. At that point, it’s a real test. We had to get them to work even though they’d experienced success.”

What are some of the keys to rebuilding a program?

“The most important thing is deciding who to surround yourself with. Everyone in the organization is so important, and you need a consistent theme. Sometimes as a coach, you go someplace new after you’ve been successful, and you think you can apply the same style. Every school has unique strengths and weaknesses. You have to figure out what you have to do to be successful. Will we recruit better, or will we think outside the box?

“We did a good job of bringing in good people to help as a coaching staff. It sets the expectations for the program. Players sense it when they see coaches working hard. It puts pressure on them to do the right things. You also have to empower your coaches to be successful. Have a distinct plan on offense, defense, and special teams. You may have to adjust it, but come up with a long-term plan. You have to get better every day and constantly evaluate yourself.”

What new technology is your team using?

“The good thing for me about coming up with Leach and Mumme was we always thought outside the box. As a result, we were always on the cutting edge offensively. We didn’t have a lot of contact at practice – even 22 years ago when other teams were beating each other up every day.

“Now, we monitor load every day at practice. We spend time every day talking about when to push more and when to back off. There’s always a fine line, and we have those conversations every day. We look at the GPS tracking to get input, and we also talk to the players and coaches.

“Another thing is we believe heavily in analytics. We analyze every decision we make in-game. We go for it a lot on fourth down. We play aggressive, and we believe in our players. We have confidence in them, and that makes decisions easy when you feel you can execute at a high level.”

A Prosperous Coaching Tree

Just three years out of college in 1997, Dykes landed a graduate assistant position on the University of Kentucky coaching staff. That proved to be the most formative stretch of his career, as he learned under Air Raid architects Hal Mumme and Mike Leach.

“I was lucky,” Dykes said. “Hal Mumme was the head coach, and Mike Leach was the offensive coordinator. I was Mike’s graduate assistant. I saw them put together the Air Raid. They had started to put it together at Iowa Wesleyan, but this was the first time they’d run it in a major college football conference. I learned major lessons.”

Dykes said the key to Mumme’s Air Raid offense goes far beyond X’s and O’s.

“It wasn’t just the scheme; it was how he practiced, how he devised drills to address specific needs. We developed drills that helped us do the things we needed to make our offense successful. Those drills were the basis of our offense, those details and nuances. Football is always evolving – from the triple option to the Air Raid to the emphasis on RPOs. Everybody runs the same plays, but you have to run them better than anyone else to be successful. We spend a lot of time on fundamentals, more than anyone else. That’s what enables us to be successful, executing basic plays, making routine plays.”